The New Head of the Rhode Island Institute for Latino Policy

Inside story:
R.I. Latino advocate in the
thick of immigration debate
By G. Wayne Miller
Providence Journal (February 16, 2018)
To listen to the interview on
In the Newsroom, click here
I knew from meeting Gabriela Domenzain last fall that she would soon make her mark in Rhode Island. The newly arrived head of Roger Williams University’s Latino Policy Institute, Domenzain brought impressive credentials from her time in Washington, the national media and the Hispanic advocacy organization National Council of La Raza, now known as UnidosUS. With her distinctive energy, Domenzain, the daughter of Mexican immigrant doctors, got right to work on Latino issues, including significant educational and economic disparities here and across the nation.
But the public has come to know her best with her recent involvement in the case of longtime Rhode Island resident Lilian Calderon, wife of U.S. citizen Luis Gordillo and mother of their two young children who this week was released after a month in federal detention. Thirty years old now, Calderon came to America from Guatemala as a 3-year-old, and in January she was seized by ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Her story made national headlines as Congress once again tackles the hot-button issue of immigration.
So we were keen to discuss that case and the larger issues surrounding it with Domenzain, this week’s guest on “Story in the Public Square,” TV and radio. Her intimate knowledge of immigration and her life experiences give Domenzain an authority that is often lacking in the local and national conversations, when some people are quick to post Facebook comments and fire off tweets based on hot emotion and misinformation, not cold facts.
Lilian, Domenzain said, was seeking to set her record straight when “she was literally vanished from her community without any explanation.” For Domenzain, it represented a chilling change of tactics by federal authorities. It was one of the first such in New England, she said – but not the last in the region and country, she fears, under the Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress.
How did we get here? we asked. Efforts at comprehensive immigration reform date to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, more than three decades ago.
From the GOP side, Domenzain said, an explanation can be found in those congressional Republicans who bitterly opposed Barack Obama in his first term. “A backlash,” she called it, led by extremists who understood that a hard-line anti-immigration stand would appeal to some white voters and might prevent America’s first African-American president from winning a second term.
“We’re talking about the Tea Party and the very, very right fringe extreme caucus that is now in the middle of the Republican Party,” Domenzain said. “It used to be fringe. Now it’s actually front and center.”
Across the aisle, Domenzain asserted, other factors were in play.
“On the Democratic side, they haven’t decided to use their political capital on these issues,” she said. “President Obama tried his first year. It didn’t work. He decided to go with health-care reform, which, by the way, was the number-one priority for Latino voters because we are the most underinsured and uninsured population.”
Like many others, Domenzain sees this year’s elections as potentially game-changing. Surveys suggest that greater numbers of Hispanic, African-American and other traditionally non-Republican voters will cast ballots than in 2016.
That, she said, does not bode well for today’s Washington.
“The Republican Party has no chance with Latinos right now. They have the most anti-immigrant, racist president in the history of this country and Latinos recognize that they’re scapegoats.”
I have only touched on our wide-ranging conversation (which, I would note, Lilian’s husband and one of the children watched from the control room). Wherever you stand on the immigration debate, this is a broadcast well worth hearing or watching.
This is the latest in an occasional series by Journal staff writer G. Wayne Miller about guests on “Story in the Public Square,” a partnership of The Journal and the Pell Center at Salve Regina University now in its third season. It airs on Rhode Island PBS Sundays at 11 a.m., and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version airs Saturdays at 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on SiriusXM’s P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), Channel 124. Programs are archived at